Here’s a fact that most speakers–even experienced ones–tend to forget, even if they know it’s true: People internalize the first things they hear much more quickly and effectively than whatever follows it. Your opening words count more in the minds of your listeners than most of what you say afterward.
So whatever you want to glue into the minds of your audience, start there. Startle them. Give them something to ponder. Say something controversial and provocative. The goal is to pique their interest as you build your credibility. One reason this well-known advice is rarely put into action as well as it could be is simply that many speakers don’t know how to do it. These three techniques can help.
Don’t lead with something familiar like September 11, 2001. Look for a date in history that will initially puzzle people. “The date was April 13, 1973. An event occurred that day that changed the world. It’s a shame no one noticed. What happened?”
You’re building suspense before you’ve even finished your first sentence. People will begin wracking their minds for what they know about that date and what was going on in the world that year. They’ll being think to themselves, “I don’t know what happened on April 13, 1973” and will eagerly await your explanation: “At noon that day, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 58th Street in New York City, the very first commercial cell phone call was made.”
Audiences appreciate something timely that they can all relate to. Don’t rely on celebrity stories or exhaustively reported news. Find something unique–or at least uniquely relevant to the people in the room. When Google announced it was changing the name of its parent company to Alphabet, I hooked my Wall Street audience by saying, “Let me tell you why they’re doing this.”
If you’re in a room with a sports crowd and something like the Tom Brady “Deflategate” scandal hits, use that. But if the event happened two months before your talk, don’t use that. A trade association for textiles? Talk about a headline involving a fashion chain.
Whatever you select, your aim should be to find common ground and then have people in the audience begin thinking, “Yes, I’m familiar with that–now where’s she going with this?”
You can build an air of mystery by rolling out a series of cryptic slides that lead your audience to an unexpected place. If you’re speaking about the power of value investing, paint a scene that doesn’t give that away right off the bat. Instead of just plastering an image of Warren Buffett on the screen, show a bottle of Heinz ketchup and a can of Benjamin Moore paint. Put on an apron from the Pampered Chef, and hand out some peanut brittle from See’s Candy.
These companies, all investments of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, may not strike people as hot investment properties right away. But you can help set the stage for the idea that extraordinary returns can be accomplished through familiar consumer-goods companies, not just high-tech ventures. This way you’ve found a fresh approach to introduce the concept of value investing yet relied on a simple way to make your point–all before uttering your first word.
These are just a few techniques. There are are many more that work just as well. Try developing some others based on your interests and the needs of the audience. But never forget that if you want to be remembered, do the opposite of what’s normally expected. And don’t waste time doing it.
The information you present first acts as a lens through which all subsequent information flows. As a result, it can capture your audience’s attention at the same time that it builds your credibility. You need your listeners to believe you when your talk is over. Otherwise, you’re just talking, not persuading. The starting point is getting them to listen–and then getting them to care.
Chuck Garcia is the author of A Climb to the Top: Communication and Leadership Tactics to Take Your Career to New Heights. He is the founder of Climb Leadership Consulting and a professor of organizational leadership at Mercy College.